eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre and his wife, Pam Omidyar, founded The Omidyar Group in 2004. Omidyar Network India (ONI) is part of the same group, which has emerged as the top investor in early-stage enterprises working in digital identity, emerging tech, governance, education, etc.
ONI has been actively pushing for a sustainable digital transformation. A 2020 report by ONI, in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group (BCG), said India is at an inflection point in its digitisation journey. Being at such a crucial juncture calls for the adoption of Open Digital Ecosystems (ODEs). This concept has enabled countries like the UK, Australia, and Singapore to make significant progress in their digital transformation journey.
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AIM: What are Open Digital Ecosystems?
Kriti Mittal: Our digital lives today are as important as our physical lives. The Covid19 pandemic has further accelerated this transition – we now interact and transact digitally more than ever before in history. Similar to the way in which the government plays a crucial role in creating ‘commons’ in the physical world — such as building roads and drainage systems for the public — in today’s world, there is also a need to create ‘digital commons’. Open Digital Ecosystems are the public infrastructure we need for an increasingly digital world.
ODEs are a new service delivery construct where both government and private sector entities leverage shared technology infrastructure to unlock new solutions and enhance the end-user experience. This signals a paradigm shift to a more collaborative, participatory approach.
Varad Pande: India is one of the global leaders in the march towards building Open Digital Ecosystems. Learnings from India’s digital infrastructure, i.e. Aadhaar and UPI, are now benefiting other countries through open-source solutions like MOSIP for digital ID and Mojaloop for digital payments.
Countries like Singapore, UK, Australia, Estonia and Denmark have also made strides on this front. The UK, for example, has comprehensive guidelines for government agencies to leverage data to improve services. Denmark has undertaken various activities to promote the co-creation of technology solutions, including organising hackathon challenges and collaborating with educational institutions. Singapore, too, has adopted a citizen-centric approach to digital service delivery. Estonia has created a globally recognised secure data exchange protocol called ‘X-Road’.
AIM: What is the broad goal of ODE? How can governments help?
Kriti Mittal: The essential idea behind ODEs is to create a shared technology infrastructure that enables a community of actors to collaborate via the platform and build on top to deliver shared value. In addition to the traditional role of public service delivery, there are two other roles through which the government can support ODEs.
- Role of an enabler, where the government creates technology infrastructure that public and private bodies can leverage to build innovative user-facing solutions. These platforms can include data exchanges or open technology stacks on which end-user solutions can be built.
- Role of a regulator, where the government is responsible for establishing and enforcing a robust governance framework that ensures a level playing field and fair outcomes for all. While all ODEs require governance, the regulator’s role becomes even more critical when ODEs are handling sensitive personal data, such as in the financial and health sectors.
AIM: What is your take on privacy and security issues associated with digitalisation?
Kriti Mittal: There are certain risks associated with multi-stakeholder open digital ecosystems. The lack of strict safeguards in such a system can open up the possibility of unauthorised profiling, surveillance, and behaviour manipulation, putting individuals’ privacy and wellbeing at risk.
In this context, all digital platforms being built for population-scale purposes must have a federated architecture. The data is stored across multiple databases at the level of the concerned entity, with a secure data exchange protocol in place. This eliminates the need to create a large, centralised data registry, helps ensure organisational autonomy and distribution of responsibilities as provided by the constitution, and makes the data more secure.
Varad Pande: A key guiding principle of ODEs is adopting a Privacy by Design approach. This means embedding the right technology features and policy measures within the design of the digital platform to safeguard individual users’ rights and personal data. It is important to build safeguards along the value chain of data — from data collection and data processing to data storage and data sharing. Examples of such safeguards are end-to-end data encryption, purpose specification, data minimisation, electronic consent, and authorisation frameworks that can help mitigate issues of data privacy & security.
The traditional method of seeking consent from the user is broken – users often may not understand the implications of consent notices couched in legalese. Instead, business and government entities building digital platforms should seek to build consumer trust, and regulators should step in to inform and guide consumers. True privacy by design means that the ‘burden of proof’ on privacy should rest with providers rather than consumers.
Kriti Mittal: Another issue is if the base data registry has incorrect, incomplete, non-representative or biased data, then the decisions that are tethered to it could be biased or incorrect. The ODE approach suggests establishing mechanisms for users to correct, update their data, and release the platform’s source code to enable regulators and civil society entities to check for exclusionary biases in such algorithms.
AIM: How do you establish efficient tech-based governance?
Kriti Mittal: The widespread impact of ODEs can be realised only if the ecosystem is built on a foundation of trust and equity. In this regard, the following five principles can help ensure robust governance and transparency in the ecosystem:
- Clearly defining accountable institutions: Every digital platform should have a designated institution that is accountable to the public for its overall management and the core digital infrastructure.
- Establishing robust rules of engagement: Defining the responsibilities, rights, and liabilities of all actors in the ecosystem (government bodies, private sector participants, individuals) in adherence with domain-specific laws and other overarching national policies and frameworks is vital.
- Creating transparent data governance: Clear standards and policies should be outlined with regard to data ownership, collection, contribution, consumption, and sharing of data, especially with respect to sensitive personal data.
- Ensuring the right capabilities: There is a need to establish the right HR policies and partnership networks to attract and retain talent to build and operate digital platforms. Besides technology development and maintenance, there are several other skills such as data analytics, design thinking, consumer behaviour, etc., that are needed.
- Adopting a sustainable funding model: A sustainable, long-term funding model should be developed aligned with the platform’s overall goals to ensure uninterrupted operations and continuous user-focused enhancements.
AIM: Which social sectors benefit immensely from tech interventions?
Kriti Mittal: Open Digital Ecosystems hold tremendous potential to unlock significant economic, societal, and governance value. In our recent report on this topic, we estimate that by 2030, 10 high potential National ODEs across sectors can collectively generate a new value of USD 500+ billion – equivalent to 5.5% of India’s GDP, and in addition, generate USD 200+ billion in savings to the country.
For example, an ODE with immense potential for social impact is currently being implemented under the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM). It hopes to create distributed databases of patients’ e-health records to ease access for doctors and hospitals, enabling patients to move seamlessly from one healthcare provider to another. As the ecosystem develops, citizens would also be able to avail additional services built on top of the core NDHM platform, like telemedicine, faster claims processing, and AI-powered diagnostics. The Health NODE can increase life expectancy by one to three years by enhancing access to healthcare and health insurance coverage.
Similarly, a Talent NODE (for skilling and employment) can potentially match 50-80 million people with better-fit jobs, thereby benefitting 10-20 percent of the non-casual labour force. A Law and Justice NODE can bring digital interventions in court hearings, filing cases, online dispute resolution and lead to faster resolution of court cases. These are only a handful of examples of the immense potential that NODEs have in serving the public good.